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My Journey Into Spearfishing

Some divers are uncomfortable with underwater hunting and question whether it contributes to ocean conservation. NAUI Freedive Training Coordinator, and instructor trainer Dan Semrad shares his joyful journey into breath-hold spearfishing, and his thoughts on responsible harvesting. Take a deep breath.

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by Dan Semrad
All photos courtesy of Dan Semrad

People often ask me, what got you into freediving? Apparently, pursuing a career in breath-hold diving doesn’t seem like a logical choice for a guy born and raised in Oregon. The answer to that question is undeniably spearfishing.  

I grew up loving the water. Truth be told, I was freediving long before I knew that it was a formal sport; before I knew it had risks associated with it; and before I knew it was even a real option. At that point I fell into the most dangerous group of freedivers, the untrained and task-loaded solo divers. In my mind I was snorkeling, albeit aggressive snorkeling, but snorkeling nonetheless. I couldn’t dive very deep or my ears would scream at me and the resulting barotitis media [damage to the middle ear from pressure changes] would render me functionally deaf until it resolved. Of course, that wouldn’t stop me from hitting the water whenever I could. 

It wasn’t until I had finished my master’s degree in education that I started my formal dive training and got scuba certified. I was hooked. I started helping with every course, advancing through the ranks until ultimately earning my scuba instructor credentials with the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI).  

Somewhere along the line I found an old speargun in a shop and asked about it. Being a science teacher with a love for environmental science, I have always felt that it is important to know where my food comes from, and I have always done my best to raise, grow, or harvest my own food. I also love to fish and am aware of the problems associated with our commercial fisheries, environmentally speaking. So spearfishing appealed to me as both an application of diving and as a way to sustainably harvest food for my family and friends.  

For The Love of Breath-hold

As I became more proficient and more connected with our local spearfishing community, I realized that spearing on scuba wasn’t universally accepted. I started getting gentle nudges to start spearing on breath-hold. At the time I thought that freedivers were a pretty crazy bunch, and I honestly had zero interest in freediving beyond about 40 ft/12 m for more than a minute. That gave me all the time I needed to hunt our local targets of lingcod, rockfish, and cabezon.  

I took my first freediving course with that goal in mind. My mindset was that I would do the breath-hold required, learn the technique, and then spearfish safely. However,

I would never really use it for anything more than shallow Northwest spearfishing.

Little did I know that it would change my life.  

Upon taking my first course, I fell in love with freediving and spearfishing on breath-hold. I had already come to the realization that local spearfishing was not very challenging when you have a tank on your back. Not that doing it on breath-hold leveled the playing field, but pursuing my dinner underwater while holding my breath definitely added a new element of fairness and adventure to the hunt, and I loved it. I also observed that the marine environment interacted with me differently and I with it when I entered the water on breath-hold versus when I was on scuba. I wanted more.

I became comfortable exceeding my initial goals and was curious how far I could actually go. So I continued my training and eventually became a freediving instructor, and then an instructor trainer for both NAUI and Performance Freediving International (PFI). As divers we are drawn to the water, but I felt the pull in such a way that I decided to leave my job teaching high school–and scuba–and pursue my passion for breath-hold diving. I discovered that I enjoy the pursuit of depth on the line and the mental challenge of pushing for longer static breath-holds. I enjoy diving deeper on a breath-hold than I do on scuba, but if I am diving for fun, I always come back to spearfishing.  

Responsible Harvesting

I often get mixed responses to my passion for spearfishing. The most common response is from onlookers who are genuinely interested in what I’m doing and about the fish I catch. Even the hook-and-line folk whom we share sites with will more often than not be excited about what we are doing and ask us where the fish are holding, or if we can find that favorite jig they lost earlier in the day. Occasionally, though, I run across someone with a negative perception of what we do. My approach to this is to always be respectful, ask questions to understand their point of view, and then respectfully advocate for responsible spearfishing.  

In my mind, spearfishing–and especially spearfishing on breath-hold in the Pacific Northwest–is the most sustainable way to harvest seafood. If you enjoy eating seafood, harvesting it yourself is the most responsible way to do it. On the flip side, I also try to educate my fellow spearos on what species we target and when, being mindful of reproductive cycles and growth rates. I encourage them to be good representatives for our sport and our community. We often talk about the food quality of a trophy size fish versus a smaller fish, or the fecundity of a large female lingcod and how many smaller lingcod it would take to produce the same number of eggs. Once a harvest is made, we discuss what images we should put on social media and how we can be respectful of our catch and the community.

When considering my personal hunting/harvesting, I try to make sure that every day in the water is focused on safety and enjoyment. Earlier this year, my team and I had the opportunity to go after a couple of world records for spearfishing, and we were successful. Even on the days where a trophy fish is the target, we focus on fish that are part of a sustainable stock, and we are very selective in our harvest by only taking the fish we need that day. I enjoy the interaction as much as the harvest.  

Finding the fish and then leading it to where you can present your shot takes a lot of patience and practice. Some of my most memorable fish were ones that I ultimately passed on for one reason or another. I will always remember a drop in Hawaii where I called in a large uhu from way down the reef, after my buddy had spooked it. I had set up behind a coral head banked by a wall creating a natural pinch point. The fish became curious, swam across the reef to investigate, and went right through the pinch that I had set up, providing me with the perfect shot. As the fish–which was larger than any uhu I had seen in a long time–swam past, I just enjoyed watching it carry out its business. I was flying out the next day and knew there was no way I would use all of that catch, so I left it on the reef. 

Freedive spearfishing provides an incredible way to enjoy our marine environment and harvest fresh food. It is about a lot more than simply going out and shooting whatever you can: It is the most selective way to get dinner, and most spear fishermen and women are some of the strongest ocean advocates out there. Our passion lies not only in hunting but in becoming part of the marine environment. I am not alone in my sentiments about leaving fish more often than taking them.  

If you are interested in spearfishing on breath-hold, please take a freediving class first.  Learn the technique, and, more importantly, the freediving safety protocols. Taking a local spearfishing course is also a great way to speed you on your learning curve and to ensure that you get off to a good and safe start.  

Additional Resources:

The Oregon Freediving Company Youtube Channel


Dan Semrad II is the NAUI Freedive Training Coordinator, an Instructor Trainer (IT) for NAUI, for both freediving and scuba, and a PFI IT. Dan is a professional educator with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in teaching. After becoming a scuba instructor, Dan wrote curriculum enabling his high school science students to earn scuba certification, a high school science credit, and a college credit. Before leaving full-time public education to pursue a career in freediving, Dan was the recipient of MIT’s “Excite Award” for innovative classroom projects. Dan left the scuba shop that he co-founded to start The Oregon Freediving Company, the first freediving shop in Oregon, which caters to all types of freediving with emphasis on spearfishing. Dan has coached athletes to national records; worked as a competition safety diver on multiple national records; competed in spearfishing tournaments; and assisted in world-record spearfishing trips. His website is www.oregonfreediving.com, which includes a course and events schedule. You can also contact him at dsemrad@naui.org.

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Brits Brew Beer Booty

What do you get when you combine British divers’ proclivity for shipwreck exploration with their strong affinity for beer? A tasty treasure hunt on the “Wallachia” that resulted in swilling 126-year old reconstituted British beer. GUE Scotland’s detective chief inspector Andy Pilley recounts the tale.

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by Andy Pilley
Images courtesy of
A. Pilley

Header Image: GUE Scotland’s brewmeisters enjoying their brew (L to R) Top: Owen Flowers, Andy Pilley, Wayne Heelbeck. Middle: Steve Symington, A. Pilley, O. Flowers, Bottom: W. Heelbeck, Sergej Maciuk, S. Symington

“Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”

Queen Victoria

I never thought when I started diving 10 years ago, that one day I would be able to sit down for a pint of beer with the team from GUE Scotland recreated from a brew that has been hidden under the waves for 126 years. Let me explain.

The Wallachia was a single screw cargo steamer that was owned by William Burrell & Son of Glasgow, and employed on regular trips between Glasgow and the West Indies. On 29th September, 1895 she left Queen’s Dock, Glasgow at 10am bound for Trinidad and Demerara. On board was a valuable general cargo including whisky, gin, beer, acids, glassware, and earthenware plus building materials and footwear. By 1pm that afternoon she had settled on the seabed of the Clyde Estuary after colliding with another ship in a fog bank, she was forgotten until 1977 when a local sub-aqua club rediscovered the wreck site.

The wreck of the Wallachia lies on an even keel in approximately 34 metres of water on a sandy seabed. The wreck itself is largely intact and has six holds in total, three forward and three aft. In the rearmost hold there are thousands of bottles of beer, some still inscribed with the name of the maker, McEwans of Glasgow. This is where myself and the team from GUE Scotland enter the story.

The Wreck of the Wallachia 

The Wallachia is one of the more accessible sites on the west coast of Scotland, where we carry out most of our diving. Depending on weather and tidal conditions, visibility on the wreck can be +10m/33 ft on a very good day or less than 2m/6 ft if there has been a lot of rain due to the amount of particulate in the water. Other elements to consider are the tide as this can vary in its intensity, as well as surrounding boat traffic. The wreck lies in close proximity to a ferry route and care must be taken not to dive when the ferry is closeby. However despite the challenges, the wreck is very rewarding and offers a diver plenty of places to explore and items to look at. 

The main point of interest for most has been the rearmost hold, where the bottles of whisky and beer were stored. The majority of the whisky was removed in the 1980’s however a few bottles can be found on occasion, depending where you look. What remains are thousands of bottles of beer, still with the corks and contents intact. Over the course of 2018 & 2019, the team at GUE Scotland dived on the wreck and recovered a number of bottles from the hold. 

After a chance discussion with a friend at dinner one night, I was given contact details for a company called Brewlab, which is based in Sunderland in the north east of England. Brewlab specialise in the provision of specialist brewing training, as well as laboratory services such as quality assurance, product development, chemical/microbiology testing as well as long term research options. I made contact with Keith Thomas, the Director of Brewlab, to discuss whether he would be interested in analysing the beer and investigating whether it could be recreated. Needless to say the proposal piqued his interest and arrangements were made for the bottles to be shipped to his lab.

Unbeknownst to me, the recovery of historical beers is rare, due to various sources of degradation/contamination which can affect any residual microbial cells and chemical components left in the beer that were used as part of the brewing process. So these samples are a valuable source of information on past brewing and microbiology. Over the course of 2019/2020, Keith and I kept in regular contact over the progress of the investigations and the full analysis of the beer has recently been published.

A Brewing Interest

Between 1850 and 1950, the application of scientific principles to brewing was becoming increasingly prevalent and microbiology was playing an increasingly important role. A pertinent issue in brewing microbiology around 1900 was the application of pure Saccharomyces yeast cultures developed by Hansen at the Carlsberg laboratory in 1888. These were readily adopted by continental breweries as providing more controlled production and purer beers. Application to UK brewing was, however, less positively received, in part because of the belief that British beers possessed particular flavours arising from mixed yeast cultures and, specifically, the involvement of Brettanomyces species. This was especially believed to be essential for the character of ‘stock’ ales which were matured for extended periods.

While a number of breweries did try pure culture yeasts, UK brewing was resistant to change and, with the intervention of World War I, retained its indigenous yeast cultures. Since the 1940’s a more biotechnological approach to fermentation demonstrated the value of pure culture and was progressively applied to the larger breweries developing at that time. 

During the formative period of brewery microbiology after Pasteur, brewing yeast were identified as Saccharomyces species based on morphological features of shape, filamentous propensity and spore characteristics. Non brewing, ‘wild’ yeast was recognised and termed ‘Torula’ if non-sporulating. Of these Brettanomyces strains were identified as contributing important character to stock ales. It is also clear from brewing texts that bacteria were recognised as spoilage organisms in beer, as had been initially demonstrated by Pasteur in 1863. These species were mostly categorised as bacilli and typically portrayed as rods and associated with sarcina sickness – generally producing sourness. Some studies, nevertheless, identified lactic acid bacteria as indigenous components of standard beers.

Contemporary breweries are increasingly interested in using novel microbiology, either unconventional yeast strains or mixes of species and strains for sour and natural products. Identifying the specific strains and species of yeast and bacteria present in Victorian and Edwardian beers is directly relevant to this and has particular value if cultures of authentic microorganisms can be retrieved. Reports of retrieved historic brewery microbiology are limited but hold interesting promise for identifying novel microorganisms.

The specific parameters of the analysis are contained in a published research paper, Preliminary microbiological and chemical analysis of two historical stock ales from Victorian and Edwardian brewing.”

As I mentioned, the primary objective of the analysis was to confirm whether detail could be provided on the original brewing ingredients and the fermentation microbiology. The analysis confirmed the use of Brettanomyces/Dekkera bruxellensis and Debaryomyces hansenii, which are brewing and fermentation yeasts respectively. The presence of Debaryomyces is interesting as this genus has not been noted as a historic feature of historic brewing, but has been identified in spontaneous fermentations, for example in Belgian lambic beers. Although the strain was reported to the brewing industry in 1906, it has not featured as a major contributor to beer fermentations since.



The analysis has also provided relevant information of the beer character and has confirmed that the beer recovered from the Wallachia was a stout, close to style expectations of the time and had an alcohol content of c. 7.5%. The colour gravity was high, resulting in a much darker beer however a much lower level of bitterness. Again this was typical style of the time and differs from other modern stouts.

More interestingly is the presence of various types of bacteria, which will likely have been picked up during the brewing process. The table below lists these for reference. Needless to say, historic brewing was not a sterile process in comparison to modern methods!

Bacillus licheniformisPlant and soil bacterium
Finegoldia magnaCommensal skin bacterium
Fusobacterium sp.Possible pathogenic bacterium
Kocuria roseaPossible urinary tract pathogen
Mogibacterium pumilumPossible oral cavity bacterium
Shigella sonneiEnteric pathogen
Staphylococcus epidermidisCommensal skin bacterium
Stenotrophomonas maltophiliaSoil bacterium
Varibaculum cambriensePossible pathogenic bacterium

Table 1: The bacteria found in the Wallachia beer bottles

Due to the relatively stable conditions on the wreck, being in near darkness and at a relatively cold temperature (between 6º–14ºC/43º-57ºF depending on the time of year), the live yeast structures within the beer were protected from sources of stress and allowed them to survive over the past 126 years. Luckily, Keith was able to extract these samples and begin to recultivate the yeast, specifically the Debaryomyces, with the hope of being able to rebrew the beer.

Cheers Mates

Just before Christmas, I finally received word from Keith that he had completed a trial brew and seven bottles of the brew were on their way to me. A few excitement laden days later and a nondescript box arrived at my office with the beer inside. I called the guys on our Facebook group chat to show them the case and got each bottle packaged up and sent out to them. 

A few days later, once everyone had received their sample we got together again to try the samples. There was an air of excitement after the two years it had taken us to get to this point, the most anticipated pint ever! I’m no expert in the flavour profiles of beer so you will have to forgive me for my relatively basic analysis. In summary, I got flavours of coffee and chocolate and there was a relatively low level of carbonation, which made it very drinkable. The rest of the team got similar flavours, the only complaint being there wasn’t more to try!

There will of course be slight differences in flavour since we don’t normally add the bacteria listed above as ingredients. However, the recipe we have is as close as we can make it to the original stock version.

The next steps for the project are to carry out further investigation on the characteristics of the Debaryomyces yeast strain in order to determine their suitability for fermentation and potential use in future brewing production. We are making approaches to various commercial breweries in order to discuss future commercialisation of the recipe and produce the brew on large scale. With the story behind the original recipe, we’re hopeful that the provenance would be a key selling point to consumers. It is my hope that the recovery of these samples will open up new possibilities for different types of beers to be developed, and offer something different for beer enthusiasts to try.

I have also found out that there are other types of beer to be found on the wreck, specifically an IPA style. Once we’re allowed to begin diving again, I am hoping to return to the Wallachia and recover some of these bottles so we can carry out the same analysis and keep the project moving forward.

In the mean-time, cheers!

Additional Resources:

The Brewlab Podcast, Episode 2 (March 30, 2021): Lost Beers Recreated from Shipwreck Bottles

GUE Scotland vlog -Episode 1


Andy Pilley is a Chartered Surveyor, team member of GUE Scotland, passionate wreck & cave diver and Ghost Fishing UK team diver. Andy started diving with the Scottish Sub-Aqua club in 2011 and began diving with GUE in 2018. Andy dives on the east and west coasts of Scotland where there is a rich maritime history and an abundance of wrecks to be explored. He has a passion for project diving and is developing objectives for a number of sites with the GUE Scotland team. He hopes to assist on the Mars Project and with the WKPP in the future.

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